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Singing and Listening for Change

Helen Engelhardt
March 4, 2016

Michael Kline and Carrie Nobel Kline Talk Across the Lines

by Helen Engelhardt

“The recorded voice is an auditory window into the soul. The way we speak is the most integral detail of who we are.” —Michael Nobel Kline

20091105.KAS_.0151FOR MORE than 60 years, Michael Kline has been a documentarian dedicated to recording the songs, stories, and struggles of people who are usually unheard in our country. Since 1992, he has shared his life’s passion with his love and partner, Carrie Nobel, his co-creator of Talking Across The Lines, a folk-life documentary, consulting, and production firm.

In October 2007, I went down to the hills of West Virginia for a weekend of Appalachian music and lore at the Water Gap Retreat near Elkins. A friend who had met Carrie and Michael (and rearranged his life to see them again) invited me to join him. The weather was perfect — a cloudless cobalt sky and sunlight the color of honey — the landscape sublime, the cabin cozy, the food delicious, and my friend a gracious host. But it was the Klines — their warmth, and their love for each other and for the people whose stories and songs they have dedicated their lives to sharing — who were the ultimate gift.

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(Above song: “If the World Had a Front Porch,” by Tracy Lawrence, with final two stanzas by Michael Kline. Lead guitar by Peach Hampton and upright bass played by Bill Gorby)

CARRIE DESCRIBES herself as a once-upon-a-time embarrassed Jew. “I was raised in a secular household. We loosely celebrated Rosh Hashone and Passover, which has always been my favorite holiday. But in high school I recall telling people I wasn’t Jewish because Judaism was a religion and I wasn’t religious.” Her mother, she says, a “red-diaper baby who still goes to Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade meetings although she was born in 1938,” associated “Judaism with anti-intellectualism because being religious didn’t make sense intellectually,” while “my grandmother set up the menorah near the Christmas tree, on the serving board with the pineapple-dappled ham. Ah, Americans.” But after college, “at age 23 a co-worker invited me to her Rosh Hodesh group in Greenfield, MA, and I was hooked. I had little knowledge but lots of interest. When Michael and I met a couple of years later, he joined me in an exploration of what it means to be a Jew. I now see that Judaism shines brightly through the roots of my family’s commitment to bettering the world. It’s embedded in the values I hold dear.”

Michael, she says, describes himself as “a convinced Jew,” a term Quakers use. I did, of course, ask what he was convinced of. He said he’s convinced that the values of Judaism have enriched our lives and our celebration of the Jewish Sabbath has lengthened his life.”

Recently I turned my microphone on them.

Michael Kline: I grew up in Washington D.C., on Burl Ives, because my parents were liberals and Pete Seeger was being investigated by the HUAC as a Communist, and that was a bigger step than they were willing to take. When I was 7, my dad bought an old farm at the head of a long valley near Capon Bridge, West Virginia, about a three-hours drive in those days (1947) from Washington, to recreate for himself and us the access to farming and country ways he had known growing up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. This quickly became the residence of my soul.

I felt as though I dangled between two worlds, urban and rural, classical and folk, written and spoken. By age 7, I had made my choice about which culture I would pursue. I chose the one with a powerful oral tradition and endured the other as long as it was necessary. That early choice had a powerful effect on my development as a critical thinker and activist. I was a pugnacious young advocate for my beloved adoptive home. Since finishing school, I have devoted much of my professional career to tracking down, befriending, documenting, and promoting local musicians and their traditional music throughout the state of West Virginia and beyond, and generally espousing the values, arts, and causes of mountain people the world over.

When I began working for the Council for the Southern Mountains in Berea, Kentucky, my first assignment was to survey people in fourteen different counties. In four months I visited eighty homes. Nothing prepared me for Eastern Kentucky. I had never seen people living on dirt floors before, hungry children before. I saw things I still can’t believe I saw.

I was assigned to bloody Breathitt Country, Kentucky, in 1965, a county run by the Turner family. Marie Roberts Turner, locally known as The Governor Maker, was vice-chair of Kentucky’s Democratic Central Committee and also superintendent of schools. She sat on the board of directors of the Council of Southern Mountains at Berea College, which oversaw the Appalachian Volunteers. She was an awesome force, and I learned the hard way where resistance to her regime could lead. In 1966, West Virginia and Kentucky were at the bottom of the heap by any and all measures of health, education, and welfare, yet West Virginia was twelfth in the nation in wealth produced. I hadn’t read any Marx, didn’t know anything about political and economic theory, but I did some research and discovered that Ford Motor Company owned 90 percent of the assets in Leslie County in 1966, and paid $1,760 in taxes to Leslie — that’s where people were living with dirt floors and hungry children.

A staph infection put me into the hospital in Berea for ten days, and that’s when I wrote the “Talking Community Development Blues Number One Amended.” I’d bring that song to sing at rallies: Well it’s hard times in the country down on Turner’s Farm...

By 1971 I was collaborating with photographer Doug Yarrow to produce a multimedia slide-show, They Can’t Put It Back. It featured a title song written by West Virginia native Billy Ed Wheeler, exploring resistance to industrial excesses in the coalfields by projecting stunning images of Yarrow’s photographs on two screens, with my own live musical commentary off to one side. After scores of performances in churches, community halls, college campuses, and back porches around the region, we played under the stars to an audience of 7,000 at the 1974 Appalachian Folk Life Festival at Pipestem, WVA. Decades later I still run into people who tell me their political consciousness was shaped by that performance. With Rich Kirby I recorded a companion album of the same title, my second recording, featuring more than a dozen coal mining songs. It was the first such anthology of coal mining songs in the region and became something of a “cult” recording.

During the summer of 1978, I attended my first Augusta Heritage Arts Festival at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, and was swept away by the artistic energies of the town, the beauty of the Allegheny Mountains, and the rich traditions of music and folk art to be found in the surrounding region. My sudden decision to move my family to Elkins, to take a position as artist-in-residence, opened all the doors I had been longing to enter. I realized my desire to take my folklife research into Randolph County classrooms at senior centers, classrooms at the college and public schools level, and later at Huttonsville Medium Security Prison.

I visited every elementary school in the county. At the same time I was learning a vast repertoire of ballads and old tent-meeting songs from a couple of local singers, Currence and Mintie Hammonds, in their early 80s, who lived in nearby Huttonsville. These songs and stories greatly enriched my own offerings as a teacher, and I struggled to absorb their singing techniques as well, though I finally concluded sadly that you have to be a Hammonds to really sing like one.

My arts residency was largely inspired by my friendship with Elliot Wiggington and the model of Foxfire. Studying features of local traditional culture, young students learn the inventiveness and interdependence of their ancestors in gaining a foothold in the Alleghenies, and the kinds of expressive arts that were just as important to survival in the wilderness as the plow and gun. The songs make it clear that earlier generations sang to survive the isolation and loneliness of the frontier, to stave off insanity in the face of unspeakable hardship, to imprint their adventures and exploits on local memory.

In 1980 I won a West Virginia Humanities Foundation Media Award to record and produce for West Virginia Public Radio a series of thirteen 8-minute programs in The Home Place series, which recreates the ease and intimacy of a back porch visit with an old friend. I equipped myself with my first professional field recorder and hit the road.

The final piece, featuring songs associated with the Mannington Mine Disaster in Farmington, West Virginia, captured a widow’s recollection of her last day and evening with her husband who died in the November 1969 explosion, along with seventy-seven other coal miners. The program was aired on NPR’s All Things Considered in November, 1982 to commemorate the thirteenth anniversary of the tragedy.

When a job as folklorist at the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society came open in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I relocated to be closer to my children and conduct a four-county folklife inventory funded by the National Endowment for the Arts through the Massachusetts State Arts Council in Boston.

Carrie Nobel: I was raised on folk music. My mother always played records of the blues, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. I believed those songs. That belief sent me to West Virginia to meet the people who were living the lives that the people were singing about. I believed in the truth of those characters and I wanted to go find them.

A couple of days out of Hunter High School in Manhattan at age 18, I went as a summer volunteer to West Virginia, to the Appalachian South Folklife Center. I went with a winter overcoat, a swim suit and a tape recorder in a big bag, to travel from one organization to another looking for social change in exchange for room and board.

And people were singing those Pete Seeger songs, but they weren’t singing songs that made fun of old-time religion like “Aphrodite in her nightie.” This stuff isn’t trivial like it was to people in the urban concert halls.

It was a different universe for me, which is a good shake-up for an 18-year-old urban person who’s had it pretty good. It was good to be immersed in this other world, it was good to be immersed in these mountains. I felt enfolded in these layers and layers and layers of mountains.

From there I went to the coal fields of Virginia and worked for the Council of the Southern Mountains as an intern for Mountain Life and Work magazine. My roommate, Liz Betterly had a couple of records that she dearly loved. One was by Rich Kirby and Michael Kline, “They Can’t Put It Back,” songs about the coal-mining communities. I heard his voice eight years before I met him.

I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as an independent major in the Politics and Cultures of the U.S. and had my third arrest during my second year, trying to keep the CIA off campus in the fall of ’86. Eleven of us were arrested then. Chancellor Duffy called us “moral bullies,” so we adopted that as an affinity group name! Abbie Hoffman heard about us, and so did Amy Carter, who was attending Brown University. Pretty soon a couple of hundred people moved into the alumni hall. Eventually, sixty-three people were arrested, including Abbie and Amy. But I was not arrested there. I had my fourth arrest with Vietnam veterans, when we went down to Langley, Virginia and surrounded the Pentagon.

After I graduated in the fall of ‘89, I went to work for the Institute of Community Economics. In 1991 I went to a storytelling concert, because Michael Kline’s name was on the program. There was a truth in his telling that really stood out. I had just moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. I learned about a folklore project, looking for interns. Woooo, I think I want to do that! I called them up; “The folklorist isn’t here yet.” I called a couple of months later: “Did you forget me?” “No, the folklorist still isn’t here, he’s in North Carolina.”

Michael finally called me. He had a project in mind. “There’s a community of Jewish chicken farmers in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. I think we should go look into that.” And I thought, “Oh shit, he knows I’m Jewish! My cover’s blown!” I was mortified.

(Here in her narration, Carrie turned to Michael: “How did you know?” And Michael smiled, “It’s always the coolest women who are!”)

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(Above song: “Working Shoes” by Sam Gleaves. Carrie and Michael are each playing guitar and singing. Laurel Thomsen plays violin.)

In our new folklore project, no one was ever home, and they were all too hard-of-hearing to be called ahead of time. Very frustrating, this folklorist stuff. Michael would say, “Well, let’s walk in the woods and, hey I’ve brought a picnic lunch!” Finally we did get to interview Lena Sandler, who had written the article about the Jewish chicken farmers, and she took us to see the synagogue. There was a hornet’s nest in the bottom of the Jewish star. In the 1970s, the place had been converted from a Baptist Church, for a community of New York Jews who had moved up beginning in the 1920s.

We finally met Rubin Toplitz, a 105-year-old Russian Jew; I was hooked. He didn’t know who we were because he couldn’t hear, but he invited us into his home and let us record him and told us some version of his life story from Alexandria, Russia to Sandisfield. He had already woven the tapestry and had figured out what parts he’d want to share.

And I was realizing that this was the Michael Kline of the record — I asked him about that, but he didn’t answer. Next day he appeared with the record — it was just mind-blowing.

Michael’s job with the Pioneer Valley Folklore Center was ended by state budget cuts. We had an opportunity to work for the National Park Service and produce a radio series called Talking Across the Lines, so that’s where TATL was born. We came back to West Virginia via Wheeling, where we did 163 life story interviews with Wheeling people. We had already been singing our favorite West Virginian songs in Massachusetts.

We came back in 1994. We married in our hearts in November ’92, and married with the state in February ’93. We did a name trade. He took my name as his middle name; I took his last name. I didn’t see the long road way ahead but just kept stepping. The more you step, the more you realize you’re in the flow.

If you want to learn more about Michael and Carrie and hear more of their music, check out their wonderful website;

Helen Engelhardt is a frequent writer for Jewish Currents, whose last major article for us was about Muriel Rukeyser. She is the writer and co-producer of “No More War: The Sacrifice of Käthe Kollwitz,” which aired on National Public Radio and is available at her website. She is also the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103. The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010.